By: Dave Tell
Built in 1949, the through-truss bridge over the Tallahatchie River on MS 32 has had a profound—if indirect—influence on the memory of Emmett Till.
The Tallahatchie River splits Tallahatchie County in half, geographically and culturally. The western half of the county is in The Delta—the fertile floodplain of the Mississippi River known for its topsoil and its aristocratic planters. The eastern half is in “hill country.” The topography of the hills mitigated the growth of cotton and left its entire population largely impoverished. The topographical differences produced a racial differential. While the Delta had a strong sense of noblesse oblige and prided itself on its “care” of the black population, the farmers of the hills found themselves competing with blacks and therefore treated them with less respect.
These cultural divisions in Tallahatchie County influenced the trial of Emmett Till. During the jury selection of September 19, 1955, the prosecution made a critical mistake. They sought jurors from the eastern part of the county (the hills), thinking it would produce a more impartial jury. They did not realize that selecting white men from the hills would likely increase the racism of the jury and decrease the chances of an impartial trial. These problems were compounded by the fact that the defendants did not enjoy a good reputation among their fellow Delta residents. Had the prosecution sought a jury from western Tallahatchie County, the trial may have been much different.
Because the Tallahatchie River flooded and occasionally prevented passage between the hills and the Delta, Tallahatchie County required two courthouses—Sumner serving the Delta and Charleston the hills. The Till trial was held in Sumner, the County Seat of Tallahatchie County’s second (western) judicial district. Modern construction has, of course, rendered passage of the flood-prone Tallahatchie River a non-issue. In 1949, this steel-truss bridge was built by the State Highway Agency on State Highway 32 between Charleston and Sumner. The results on Till’s memory would have been difficult to predict.
Because the bridge eliminated the need for two courthouses, residents of the second County Seat in Sumner have been concerned that the legal industry would be consolidated in the larger city of Charleston. Such a move would devastate the town of Sumner—a town that could not survive without its courthouse and attendant legal industry. With this in mind, in the early twenty-first century, Jerome Little (Tallahatchie’s first black County Supervisor) founded the Emmett Till Memorial Commission (ETMC) for the express purpose of saving the Sumner Courthouse. In other words, Till’s memory—and the simple fact that Till’s trial was held in Sumner—became a mechanism for preserving the twin county seats. Since 2005, the ETMC has renovated the courthouse and done far more. They have put up roadside markers around the county, organized commemorative events, and authored a public apology. In short, the ETMC has done more for Till’s memory than any other organization in the Delta. None of this would have happened, however, were this bridge not here. For without this bridge, the Tallahatchie County would still require two courthouses and the livelihood of Sumner would have no need of Till’s memory to ensure its survival.